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Launch of the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open-Source Investigations – Berkeley University

Video statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

1 December 2020

It is an honour to take part in such an important event, both historic and forward-looking.

Technology can help us see the distant, the obscured and the unimaginable -- and serve as concrete proof of violations of human rights and international law.

And as technology advances, many new ways to harness these tools to protect and advance human rights are being developed.

Cell phones, satellite imagery, social media, big data analysis and many other digital tools have opened new channels for documenting attacks against civilians, their displacement and destruction of civilian objects. These tools provide us with a new wealth of data and imagery, alongside our traditional on-the-ground human rights investigations, and help us to speak out against violations with greater confidence and certainty.

So, how do we ensure that digital information serves as credible and reliable support to our work? How best can we maximize its utility for human rights accountability?

This is a challenge that the UN Human Rights Office has embraced for some years now, as we undertake or support a range of investigations including commissions of inquiry, special rapporteurs, fact-finding missions and others.

These forms of investigations often examine in detail situations involving the most heinous acts humans can perpetrate against each other. Digital imagery has been increasingly helping investigators verify what happened, where and when, as well as who were the victims, and who may be responsible.

I would stress that digital materials are subject to the same methodological rigor developed by my Office regarding source assessment and protection, corroboration, verification, analysis and standard of proof, as any other methods. They supplement and enhance our traditional techniques of inquiry, rather than replacing them.

Our aim is to ensure that international investigative standards are not overlooked in the speed of technological changes, and that new technologies serves to strengthen the compilation of the evidence base and its analysis, while boosting the credibility of conclusions reached.

And, indeed, digital data and imagery have supported outcomes of investigations in diverse areas. These have included torture, summary executions, enforced disappearances, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention and other human rights violations, even amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The examples are many. To cite just a few:

In Myanmar, the Fact-finding Mission used satellite imagery to corroborate the accounts of victims, ultimately leading to a finding of crimes against humanity, and possibly even genocide. A closely-watched inter-State case on these issues is now being adjudicated at the International Court of Justice.

In Syria, our Office closely examined the evidence of numerous videos, many released by the perpetrators themselves, showing captives being paraded in cages on the back of pick-up trucks, and the graphic executions of others, perpetrated by adults and even children.

Satellite imagery also assisted the Commission for Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) to find that crimes against humanity had likely occurred – given widespread destruction of private property and attacks against a civilian population in over 40 villages over the course of two months.

The work illustrated by these examples are why we have chosen to publish this Protocol jointly with the Berkeley Human Rights Center. In addition to the development of this Protocol, our Office has been working closely with the Berkeley Human Rights Investigation Lab to bring verified digital information into United Nations human rights monitoring and investigations, including situations where our investigators have been denied physical access.

Colleagues,

This Protocol has been developed by a diverse group of experts with diverse professional perspectives, legal and cultural backgrounds, and was subjected to a rigorous process of review, revision, confirmation and validation.

The Protocol places protection and security at the forefront, for as we know sources, human rights defenders, journalists, victims, witnesses and others often risk their lives to secure digital information about violations. The direct evidence of victims and witnesses will always be primary evidence for us, and we must do everything to maintain their full confidence.

In an era of widespread misinformation and disinformation, the Protocol gains even more importance. It sets out principles and methods behind verification and authentication analyses that practitioners and laypeople can comprehend – and identifies necessary core technical resources[1] and technical expertise[2].

And foremost, the Protocol insists that investigators and others carrying out this work continue to be grounded in and bound by fundamental ethical, professional, methodological and legal principles and standards.

These principles ensure that the information is collected in line with human rights standards, and, therefore, relevant and best usable later for wider accountability purposes when conditions allow.

And that is the case whether material is presented in court, presented as evidence; in a vetting process or a transitional justice mechanism; in a commission of inquiry or fact-finding mission; or in any entity that makes determinations as to the existence, or not, of a violation of international law.

The Protocol is, ultimately, about protecting human rights and advancing justice.

In this regard, I welcome in particular its principles of humility, inclusivity and dignity.

We are now taking the necessary steps to ensure implementation of the Protocol in our own investigations and those we support. I encourage others to do the same in their own areas of work.

Thank you for joining us in continuing to stand up for the human rights of persons everywhere, with all the tools we have.


[1] Apps, servers, computers, smartphones, cameras, etc.

[2] analysing meta data, assigning hash values, creating virtual identities, and undertaking digital security assessments, etc.